Fatal child abuse shines light on lack of safety for Vietnam’s children

By Dang Khoa, Linh DoJanuary 9, 2022 | 10:20 pm PT
Fatal child abuse shines light on lack of safety for Vietnam’s children
A memorial set up by neighbors at an apartment complex in HCMC's Binh Thanh District for an eight-year-old girl abused to death by her father's fiancée, December 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van
The recent deaths of children from physical abuse at home lays bare Vietnam’s shortcomings like violence that masquerades as discipline, social indifference and inadequate laws.

To many, what is most heartbreaking about the recent death of the eight-year-old girl in HCMC is that it might have been prevented if the right authorities had been informed in time.

Indeed, many neighbors who lived in the apartment complex in Binh Thanh District with the child’s father, Nguyen Kim Trung Thai, 36, often heard her cry and suspected she was abused, but only reported to the building management who did nothing to prevent the tragedy.

Camera footage from Thai's home recovered by the police revealed that on December 22, the day the child died of a hematoma in the forehead, cerebral edema and broken ribs, Thai’s fiancée, Nguyen Vo Quynh Trang, 26, had kicked and hit her for four hours with wooden sticks and bound her to a chair while "teaching" her to study.

Investigators have found that the child had been subject to sustained abuse by Trang with Thai’s knowledge.

While horrific, this is not the only case of fatal child abuse in recent memories.

In the last quarter of 2021 two other children also died from caregivers’ abuse: a three-year-old girl in Kien Giang Province was beaten to death by her stepfather for peeing in her pants, and a six-year-old girl in Hanoi was killed by her own father in a fit of anger when he was helping her with school work and she was slow to learn.

In the last two years 120 children have been killed, according to the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs’ Children’s Bureau.

Every year there are around 2,000 cases of child abuse, mostly by someone known and trusted by the children, and many more go unreported.

This is drawing an outpouring of responses from many quarters with experts pointing to Vietnam's inability to provide a safe environment for its children.

This includes entrenched cultural norms that tolerate violent disciplining of children, unaware and/or indifferent neighbors who do not want or know how to interfere, and a legal framework that needs strengthening.

Tolerating violence

According to Unicef Vietnam, violent disciplining is still widespread with over 68 percent of children aged one to 14 experiencing some form of violence at home by their parents or caregivers.

In many families, violence is used as a means to establish male dominance and masculinity. This behavior is influenced by parents’ financial security, level of education and issues such as alcohol and drug abuse.

Every month 111, the national hotline for children’s protection, receives around 30,000 calls.

But during the Covid-19 pandemic, when lockdowns and social distancing coupled with social and economic pressures have led to an increase in domestic violence against women and children worldwide, child abuse in Vietnam has also been on the rise with the number of calls jumping to 40,000-50,000 a month.

Rana Flowers, the Unicef representative in the country, recently issued a statement expressing grief at the eight-year-old child’s death and called for more government resources and commitment to building a better child protection system which must not tolerate any form of violence toward young people.

She said Vietnam needs a system in which trained social workers - not volunteers or non-trained welfare workers - work together with trained police and child-friendly judges and courts to "identify, intervene, respond, and protect".

In such an environment, neighbors who hear the violence or the cries would inform the police and insist they take action, the police would be accountable for their action and health workers and teachers would recognize the signs and report abuse, she said.

Unfortunately, however, experts said Vietnamese who witness violence mostly think it is none of their business.

"Neighbors may believe it is best not to get involved because different families have different parenting methods, and so they choose to ignore all the signs, believing it is a family affair," Nguyen Duc Loc, director of the Social Life Research Institute in HCMC, said.

The problem is exacerbated by urbanization, with families now socializing and interacting less with neighbors and other people around them, he said.

Many parents confirm this, saying they do not want to be nosy when others teach their children.

"Parents are normally angry when they beat their children," Nguyen Thi Quynh Trang of Hanoi’s Long Bien District said.

"I don’t want to step in or make a fuss because they are not my children or my business".

However, child experts decry this common tolerance of violence and point out that no degree of violence, however mild and for whatever reason, is acceptable, especially in children’s eyes.

A survey of 5,400 children done last November by the Hanoi-based Management and Sustainable Development Institute found 90 percent of them considering "violence" all rough discipline ranging from comparing, scolding and cursing to hair-pulling to beating, even when the discipline is done in the name of love.

Calling 111 or the police?

The utter tragedy of little ones being killed at home is serving as a wake-up call to many people, startling them out of their apathy and making them take another look at their social responsibility.

Trang of Hanoi, for instance, admitted that she has heard her neighbors scream at their children many times but did nothing about it.

"I did not know who I should report these incidents to, and so I merely pitied the kids".

Not knowing how and where to report child abuse is a pervasive problem.

A survey of over 1,800 readers by VnExpress in December 2020 found two-thirds saying they did not know of any hotline or organization for reporting child abuse. A few dozens vaguely knew about one or two, and only a handful believed they were effective.

Interestingly, around half of the calls to the hotlines come from children themselves, mostly in the 11-18 age group.

Loc of the Social Life Research Institute said people should be better informed about hotlines and child protection services, and "education about ... hotlines must target not only children but also adults".

In a recent online conference on child abuse held by VnExpress, Dang Hoa Nam, director of the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs’ Children’s Bureau, said billboards are put up in schools and communities by their thousands to inform the public about the 111 hotline, but recommended further action such as incorporating the hotline into textbooks and consumer goods’ packaging.

In emergencies, people can call the children’s hotline, or the police (113), both of which are responsible for swiftly removing children from danger, he said.

The hotline would follow up on every case to prevent future abuse, he added.

Le Mai Quyen, an operator at the hotline, said in some situations this includes calming down family conflicts and raising caregivers’ awareness about the harm rough discipline does to children.

Nam agreed with the Unicef official’s observation that Vietnam lacks specifically trained social workers to protect children, but points out that the system does provide the means to coordinate action to prevent child abuse.

He said the laws require labor ministry officials, heads of the Women’s Union and Youth Union and, especially, chairperson of the local commune people’s committee to work with the hotline and police to protect children.

Bui Vo, an investigator at the Supreme People’s Procuracy, the prosecutor’s office, said Vietnam has room for improvement in protecting its young people.

In an op-ed he wrote for VnExpress, he said the criminal code governing child abuse has two serious shortcomings.

Firstly, it awards jail terms of just one to three years even to perpetrators of severe child abuse, and furthermore allows sentences to be suspended in "mitigating circumstances," a practice that falls below international standards, which are only becoming tougher against child abuse, he said.

Secondly, it fails to hold close relatives (grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, siblings, and spouses) responsible for reporting child abuse, he said.

The latter is a major problem because child abuse usually takes place behind closed doors, and close relatives are often the only ones who witness and could report it, and so they must be held responsible, as in the eight-year-old’s tragic death, he added.

With this and other cases firmly in the public eye, child abuse continues to provoke public reaction which all points out to the fact that children’s welfare doesn’t just lie within the confines of the family.

It also depends on the school, the state and the community, reminding everyone that now as before, it does take a whole village to bring up children.

No one wants to see the likes of the harrowing trial of a mother and stepfather in Hanoi who used drugs and beat their three-year-old girl to death in 2020. The man was sentenced to death and the woman got life in prison.

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